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People of Bharat: Prabhat

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

“We have spice plants too”, Prabhat points eagerly, “plants with leaves that you add to food. Like oregano, rosemary, as they say”. “Herbs?” I offer, as I follow him through the small the nursery, treading carefully to avoid saplings cluttering the path. “Yes, those” he agrees.

It is late evening on an early summer day in Ahmedabad. Customers trickle in and out of the nursery, surveying plants, purchasing manure and observing brightly coloured ceramic planting pots. “How much are those for?” A customer directs her question at Prabhat, pointing to a small green planting tray shaped and detailed to the form of a racing car. “Rs. 150” he quips. The customer nods and smiles. “I went to the mall the other day and they asked for Rs. 800 for that thing” she mutters, turning the article over in her hand.

Prabhat tells me he does not need to attend to customers. There is a sales man for that. His job is to tend to the plants. “But you cannot ignore them if they ask a question. May spoil the relationship” he adds. Prabhat is an independent gardener. He stresses the ‘independent’. He works on call for two steady clients- a private housing society, and the nursery, where I have found him. He spends two hours each day at both premises. For the rest of his day, he mostly visits bungalows with sprawling backyard gardens, whose owners have booked appointments with him.

Prabhat has worked as a gardener for over 20 years. He started at about the same time he migrated to Ahmedabad from his village in Rae-Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. It was his second trip outside the village. Three years before he left for Ahmedabad, Prabhat accompanied his brother in law to Bangalore. “This was right after I finished school. I went to Bangalore looking for work” he remembers. His brother in law set him up at a construction site in the city, where Prabhat’s job was to assist the riggers and fitters. “It was an easy job, nothing that required a great amount of aptitude” Prabhat recalls. But the work did not suit him. He reports that he constantly suffered from injuries. “I had to work with metal rods and beams, and not a day went by when I did not cut myself open by accident” he explains. He worked in Bangalore for seven months, before quitting construction work for good. He returned to his village and was soon pushed into a marriage. He tells me he was not prepared for marriage and a new dependent made life difficult for him.

“Three years passed by as I tried my hand at different jobs in the village” he recounts. Prabhat was the youngest of three brothers in a family of farmers and farm workers, and the only one with any schooling. “No one does anything apart from farming in our village. Only a handful of people do business. So I did not have many options. Everyone is a farmer. They own 2 to 5 bighas of land and cultivate. I wanted to make more money than the marginal amount we made from farming, but nothing was working out” he shares.

Without a job, Prabhat found it difficult to provide for his wife and himself. He remembers that they reached a point where they had to struggle to survive day to day. It was then that Prabhat approached an acquaintance who had migrated to Ahmedabad and followed him to the city to try his luck.

But Prabhat found himself at a loss when he arrived to the city. His acquaintance, who worked as a gardener himself, showed him around and gave him a general idea of how to go about finding work, but did little else. Left on his own, Prabhat trundled from street to street looking for work. “When a common man comes to pardes (another’s land), it is one of the most challenging experiences” he recalls. He had no place to live, no routine, no daily source of meals and no means of making a living. He bunked with other migrants from his village, but could not live with the same person for more than 3–4 days. Their landlord would threaten them against letting in a person who wasn’t paying rent. He had nowhere to go. “I was pretty much a vagabond in my first two years here” he says.

His situation gradually improved as he grew more familiar with the city. He built contacts, learnt the basics of gardening, serviced a few steady customers and rented a room to live in. “Gardening is not easy” Prabhat points out. He tells me he had never heard of the varieties of plants he nurtures here, back in the village. He continues, “Those of us who have been farmers in the past, we have a natural instinct with plants. But to be honest, before I left the village, I only knew of wheat. I hadn’t seen or heard of ornamental plants. I knew nothing of them”.

Everything Prabhat knows, he has picked up from years of experience. “I observed every plant very carefully- how much water they need, how much fertilizer is appropriate, what weather is best, whether they should be kept in shade, need diffused light or direct sunlight. Today I am in complete control of what I do. But it took me 20 years to get here. I had to toil for 20 years. On the contrary, if I had done a special course, it probably would have taken me no time at all” Prabhat wonders, but quickly reconsiders and says, “I know what I know because I have studied the plants in my own way. You know, people come with pamphlets for gardening courses, little booklets with pictures and instructions. But I bet you, these people do not know a thing. You cannot learn to care for a plant by reading a book. You have to raise them by getting your hands dirty”.

About 8 years into Ahmedabad, Prabhat decided that he wanted to buy a house in the city and have his wife and three children settle down in the city with him. He discovered a plot of land on the outskirts of the city and entered into an arrangement with the owner. Since he did not have the resources to pay in lumpsum amounts, Prabhat paid for the plot in weekly instalments of Rs. 1000. The arrangement was risky, but Prabhat feels that he had no choice. He explains, “I was determined. I wanted a house. So, every Tuesday I cycled down to the owner’s house with Rs. 1000. He would take the money and give me a handwritten receipt. There was no legal paper work in place. I got the papers only after I had made full payment. But what was I do to? I was helpless. I spent half my time on the streets. I had no local ID. No bank in its right mind would have offered me a loan. So, all I could do was trust the owner and hope for the best. One has to take risks to get ahead in life”.

It took Prabhat several years to pay off for the plot of land. The land owner advised him to start building on the plot once he was half way through his payments. Prabhat tells me he build his house by himself. “It took me five years to make it liveable” he confides, “Can you imagine the struggle I waged?” he smiles with a wizened look in his eyes.

His wife and children moved to Ahmedabad 8 years back. His kids- a son and two daughters continued their schooling in the city. Around 5 years later, Prabhat sent his eldest, his then 17 year old son, back to the village to attend college. He tells me he did so because college education is much cheaper in the village. Unfortunately, his son has not been able to complete his degree. On a visit to the city earlier this year, he rapidly fell ill owing to a searing ache in his stomach. When the family rushed him to the nearest hospital, the doctors found serious internal bleeding. It turned out that the boy was in a road accident as a teenager. He had run his cycle into a motor bike. Since had taken no major visible injuries, and did not intend to worry his mother, he hid the accident from his family. Years later, a small internal wound had festered into something near fatal.

Prabhat’s son was taken into emergency care and was operated on. The procedure cost Rs. 1 lakh, a sum that Prabhat borrowed from friends and employers in the city. “I am an old hand now, people know me, trust me. I no longer have to worry about money. My friends and employers offered to help, I did not even have to ask. My patrons treat me with respect. I can walk into their houses, they are not suspicious of me” he elaborates.

While medical expenses did not cause a big alarm, the event disrupted the daily course of Prabhat’s son’s life to a great extent. He describes the impact, “my son could not write his exams. He is still recovering and continues to be weak. The doctor has asked him to avoid physical exertion. Now, he was never great at academics, and with this break, I am not sure whether he will go back. We are not pushing him at the moment. I am not sure whether I gave him a bad upbringing or if it is something else, but he just does not communicate with us. We do not know what he is thinking, he won’t ask for counsel. I tell myself that I am just glad that we did not lose him.”

Prabhat is more hopeful for his daughters. The youngest, who is 9 years old, is especially intelligent and inquisitive. Prabhat has arranged private tuitions for the girls. “It is rewarding to spend money on the education of a child who enjoys school”, he says.

Despite the many years Prabhat has spent honing his skills as a gardener, he does not make as much money as he would like. His income varies from month to month and on an average he makes Rs. 12,000–14,000. Groceries, school fees, light bills make up the biggest chunk of his family’s monthly expenditure. Prabhat gets a Rs. 2000 paycheck from one of this customers. He earns the rest of his income in cash. He tells me that he usually leaves the amount on the paycheck in his savings account and hands over his cash income to his wife. He feels that since he has kids at home, it is prudent to have at least Rs. 5,000- 10,000 as cash in hand at home. The family does not invest in any saving schemes. “You need money for fixed or recurring deposits. Our financial situation is very tight. I run out of money meeting regular expenses. I have no buffer for unexpected demands for money” he concludes.

Nevertheless, Prabhat has reached a state of occupational stability. He has managed to buy 2 bighas of land in the village and a motorbike for himself. He has left his land in the custody of one of his brothers, who cultivates the plot alongside his own farmland. Last season Prabhat lost his jowar harvest to a scourge of nilgai. The creatures allegedly, rampaged his farm and cleared the stalks of all grain with the precision of a machine. Prabhat laments that he wishes he had access to crop insurance. He recently purchased two short term (6 months) life insurance policies at the behest of a distant relative, who doubles up as an LIC agent. But he has had no guidance on crop insurance. “You see, my brothers and his sons never went to school and therefore, do not understand insurance”, he explains. “I am here, I cannot get too involved. Plus the village is full of cheats. Agents have their own sub-dealers who bring them business. They are extremely rude and disrespectful to uneducated folks. They do not clarify terms, do not answer questions. I know of cases where agents have taken money from one person and issued policies under names of different people. So, my brothers cannot be too careful”.

Prabhat does not have any certain plans for the near future. He has vague ambitions of owning his own nursery someday but has not figured out the economics yet. “You need a sizeable plot of land to start a nursery”, he submits, “out here a 10X10 plot of land costs Rs. 30,000 in monthly rent and business is not easy. You need to have at least Rs. 5 lakhs in your pocket before you think of stepping into the business”. Moreover, he is not confident that he will do justice to a small business loan, even if he were sanctioned one, to kick-start his business. “I know how a nursery is run, I know what plants to order, I know where the best plantations are, but I have never had a business before. I am scared that if I do get a loan, I will not know what to do with the money. What if I fail? That thought alone is a huge deterrent”.

For now, Prabhat is satisfied with the way life is humming along. He owes no debts and has a community of friends to rely on. He uses a small feature phone to contact his customers and employers. He can afford a smart phone but tells me that as a gardener, he spends much of this time squatting beside saplings. Juggling a big smart phone from pocket to pocket is distracting. As we wind up, I tell Prabhat about my father. I tell him my father can fix any plant no matter how withered it is. He can pick up abandoned branches and make them bloom again. Prabhat strikes me with a knowing smile, “Your father knows how to breathe life into delicate beings who need care. It is an act of love and dedication” he says, and adds “I know what it takes.”

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